Nayantara Sehgal’s ‘Rich Like Us’: Portrayal of Women

Indian journalist and novelist, Nayantara Sehgal’s works elucidate crises of India’s elite on an individual level amid settings of political upheaval. Hailing from a strong political background and family of freedom fighters, Nayantara Sehgal is one of the most prolific writers who perpetuate her pertinence as a humanist with oblivious political as well as feminist concerns. Her literary canon chronicles the political scene with predominance in man-woman relationships and the marginalised women of the society.

Nayantara’s Sehgal’s novel, Rich Like Us is foregrounded in the political background of emergency and sketches the life of the ‘doubly marginalised women’, Rose and Mona as co-wives and Sonali, an unmarried former IAS officer. The travail of women in a unit of family and society has been discoursed in her novel. The sexist bias in the overtly patriarchal society makes the mere existence of women completely subordinate. A woman’s acceptance in a society is only validated by marriage and her capability of being a docile wife.

Well, Rose and Mona, both are exploited by their husband Ram Swarup who perceives his relationships prioritising his own selfish benefit and insensitive fulfilment. Mona, his first wife’s feelings, faces a callous retort when Ram brings along an English wife, Rose. Mona has bore a son of Ram already and this fact buoys the incompassionate severity of Ram, someone who is staunchly strong rooted in the patriarchal system of male supremacy. On the other hand, Rose after being fully ensnared in love and is coated with ‘emotional labyrinth’ by Ram, faces the revelation about Ram’s truth, that he has a wife and a son already. She was in an oblivious shock and Ram was tart enough to say, “My religion lets a man have more than one wife.”

Though Rose is vexed, she abandons her family and leaves with Ram to an absolutely strange land with aberrant culture. So magnetically drawn towards Ram, she crosses all racial and class hurdles just to be designated as ‘a usurper’. She never gets the ratification of the mistress of the house and endured disgrace and hostility. Ram’s father said, when Ram and Rose came before him the first time, “Take that woman out of my sight.”

When Rose complains about her mental saturation of the drama of the household with two wives, Ram has the temerity to be humorous with his answers defending polygamy foregrounded in the religious scriptures, “Lord Krishna had three hundred.” We can conjecture well how women were looted off their rights and equality by being sharers of their common husband and being neglected anyhow with no legally liable backup until it was the Hindu Code Bill passed in 1955.

An interesting event occurs when Ram gets infatuated by Marcella, a young, beautiful, upper class British lady and falls deeply in love with her. His keen ensnarement with Marcella marks the empathetic synchronisation of Mona’s feelings in Rose; how it feels to be cheated on. Later, Ram is so enmeshed with other English ladies, that he does not get the time to spend time with his wife Mona who is on death-bed suffering from cancer. Such are the terrible fates of wives. Sehgal portrays a baroque description of the plightful state of women in order to acknowledge the problems inside out instead of heading onto a full-fledged remedy without any fruitful awareness.

Nayantara Sehgal

Some questions may arise as to, was it completely Ram’s patriarchal stronghold that agonised the fate of Rose and Mona? I think the prevailing patriarchy can be a magic weapon for the male population but throughout the ages it has also endorsed Stockholm Syndrome in women. They have grown accustomed to the havoc of patriarchy wreaking on them and have built a defensive cloak around them regarding the patriarchal system. In such a way, we can justify the fatalism in Rose’s yielding to Ram’s influence and her decision to sail to India. She overlooked the consequence of her fate despite knowing well the truth: “ She knows it is walking blind fold off a gang plank into the deep blue sea.” Same do we witness in Mona’s case. Never does she accuse her husband to be disloyal but laments with aid to her belief in astrology and stars, resorting to “calling upon almighty to spell out what she had done in this or past lives to deserve such outrageous treatment.” But we also must gauge on the basis of the preponderate loom of misogynistic male-centric society which would not just allow the women to take a stand even if they want to.

We also come across strong figures like Sonali, one of the two protagonists and a young, unmarried, highly educated, civil servant. We can probably give the credit of her strength to the privileges she is born into as a member of the upper class strata. Nonetheless, in contrast with her sister who is the epitome of the stereotypical femininity, she emerges as a character defying conventions. She rejects the adherence of the concept of marriage to her life because the Oxford alumni is well aware of the limitations she would face in the bondage of marriage which can bring ramifications in her priority of venturing into finding the truth and logic in her ever-changing homeland. We as well see Nishi, Dev’s wife or rather Ram’s daughter-in-law, as a woman who elevated herself from grounded sands of nowhere to sharing a dinner table with political and business aristocrats. The novel amalgamated subtly the two social impositions of women in two different eras.

Sehgal’s feministic approach and sheer abhorrence for chauvinistic view of the society breaks through this novel. Rich Like Us makes a sustained and systematic effort to demolish deeply sculpted misogynistic attitudes and upholds Sehgal’s commitment to man-woman relationship which must be based on mutual trust and honest communication as two equal individuals.

As Nayantara Sehgal opines:

“I try to create the virtuous woman — the Modem Sita, if you like. My women are strivers, and aspirers towards freedom, towards goodness, towards a compassionate world.”

An amateur writer who is in a constant dilemma between accepting reality and drowning in her surrealistic reveries.